Monday, October 1, 2012
BAB Frightfest: Monster of Frankenstein 1
Monster of Frankenstein #1 (January 1973)
"Mary Shelley's Frankenstein!"
Gary Friedrich-Mike Ploog
Doug: Welcome to October, boys and girls, where we hope to provide a little monstrous fun on your five Mondays. Karen suggested we use the Marvel Firsts books and do a series on some of our favorite Bronze Age horror stars. We're kicking it off today with the Frankenstein Monster, and following up with the Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf by Night, the Living Mummy, and then a B&W beauty we've not yet chosen -- could be Morbius, or Tigra... we shall see!
Karen: The Marvel Firsts are certainly a great source for early Marvel horror. The only problem is, they make me want to go out and get the following issues!
Doug: We open in the Arctic Circle in 1898 where the explorer Robert Walton IV leads an expedition. After leaving their cargo ship, what appears to be a brief walk later brings them to their target -- the frozen body of the Monster of Victor Frankenstein! While Walton is inwardly giddy, he understands that his men do not share his enthusiasm and he is watchful of their nerves -- even the potential for mutiny -- as the men begin to hack the creature from the ice. Soon, a force which they cannot control may be loosed on their ship. Fear indeed. As night falls, Walton orders the men to rest; an Eskimo among them offers to stand watch through the night; Walton tells him to be aware. But as Canute succumbs to the brutal temperatures, a surprise ice crack snaps him back to consciousness; his warning come too late, though, as half of the crew is lost or killed in the natural calamity. Walton wonders to himself if he's allowed his obsession with finding the Monster ruin his judgement; but his men know the path they wish to take. One of the crew begins to chop wildly at the block encasing the Monster. When Canute moves to stop him, he's struck down and nearly murdered before Walton intervenes. The mutiny quelled, Walton orders the men to move the huge ice block onto the ship.
Karen: I'm curious why Friedrich - or really, I suspect, Roy Thomas -decided to set the story in 1898, about a hundred years after the original Frankenstein novel. The more obvious choices would have been to set it in the time of the book, or to set it in modern times. Of course, the series would eventually be moved into the modern day -which might have been a big mistake, in my opinion. Thomas did say, in Comic Book Artist #13, that he was pleased with this adaptation of the book, and he wished he could have done it himself, but didn't have the time.
Doug: I agree with you about the temporal setting -- what about the turn of the 20th century would scream "story possibilities!", as opposed to the turn of the 19th, in Europe? Once the Monster is aboard (still in ice), it's placed in Walton's cabin. A young sailor tends to the explorer and inquires of the creature inside the ice. Walton, fearing "ruining" the young man with the truth, shrugs it off and tells him about the Monster anyway. We then get an adaptation of the Shelley "origin" story of the so-called Frankenstein Monster". We learn that the aspiring scientist Victor Frankenstein left his family and friends to attend the University of Geneva. Frankenstein excelled in his studies, earning the praise of his professors. But if there was one knock on the young man, it was his impatience. And when the unit on human cadavers began...
Karen: If my memory is correct, most of this follows the book pretty well. I want to say that Ploog's art is just fantastic. He is certainly an illustrator -by this, I mean I could see his art inside magazines or books. It was really unusual for comics. He brings a wonderfully detailed and evocative look. I could also easily see him drawing a western story, or war story... I don't think I really appreciated him when I was younger, but I love his stuff now.
Doug: Again, I agree with you -- Mike Ploog's pictures completely complement Gary Friedrich's words. This is a wonderful collaboration. By the end of Frankenstein's third year of university, he felt he'd outgrown the knowledge of his professors. Victor Frankenstein began to rob bodies -- from graves, the gallows, anywhere he could find a newly-deceased person without bodily damage. And he began to hoard these bodies in his personal laboratory, having dropped out of college altogether. After six months of labor, he was ready to prove himself. Unlike in the films, in this story Victor Frankenstein used injections to attempt to bring life to his creature. Alas, seemingly having failed, the man turned away to look again at his calculations. But at that moment, the creature stirred, and raised a hand from the fluids in which it soaked. Frankenstein had created life from death -- his creature did live!
Karen: Ploog does a tremendous job with the use of lighting/shadows to cultivate the mood. Also, it would have been very easy to utilize imagery from the Universal Frankenstein films, which likely were familiar to him, but he shies from this. If anything, the tank reminds me of some of the Hammer films -which would have been much more recent.
Doug: Frankenstein was at first bursting with pride, but that increased pulse rate slowly melded itself to fear. For the creation stepped toward him, and those menacing yellow eyes stared into Frankenstein's -- for this was no creation to celebrate, but now a monster to fear! Fleeing, Frankenstein locked himself in his quarters, and fell exhausted onto his bed. But suddenly, hours later, he sat bolt upright, his mind racing with the events he'd unleashed. And there, standing right over his bed, was the Monster. But artist Mike Ploog gives us the reader quite a different take on this scene than that perceived by Victor Frankenstein -- Ploog's Monster, while tall and strong, has a sympathetic, inquisitive face, as that of a child. But Frankenstein doesn't see it that way and lashes out with a wooden chair. In the melee the chair is shattered against the Monster and a large candlestick is reduced to a lump -- and we are told that the creature is fully 8-feet tall with the strength of ten men!
Karen: Of course, sympathy for the Monster is key to the story, in any version. The Monster is the unwanted child, completely rejected by his parent. Frankenstein's reaction seems so unwarranted. I think they did a nice job on the Monster too. They manage to avoid copying any movie version but still make a memorable Monster. And the yellow eyes are pure Shelley.
Doug: I think Ploog has made a nice contribution to the pantheon of Monsters. Victor Frankenstein fled out into the rainy night where he collapsed once again, and sleep encompassed him. In the morning his best friend Clerval found him, and nursed him back to health over the next several weeks. But it was to sad news that Frankenstein awakened -- his brother William had been killed by their father's ward, Justine. Frantic from his own troubles, Victor nonetheless went to his father. Victor was overcome with guilt at his creation, and paranoia as to its whereabouts. As he entered his father's home he was greeted by his Elizabeth. Briefed on the crimes that had occurred, he hypothesized about the events. He wondered if Justine could have been framed, and the spectre of the Monster surrounded his thoughts. But what truly consumed Victor Frankenstein was the paradox that he could save Justine from certain death, yet indict himself for the creation of the Monster at the same time. No, that wouldn't do... But what would win out? His conscience or his fear?
Karen: Frankenstein lets Justine die, which is a big clue who the real monster of the story is.
Doug: On the day Justine was hanged, Victor Frankenstein left to hike into the Alps. Seeking refuge from the horrible reality he'd created, he climbed higher and higher. And when he stopped to rest, building a fire within a cave, his nightmare caught him -- the Monster was at the mouth. The Monster had come to judge Victor Frankenstein, to punish him for crimes against nature. Frankenstein, now frantic, lunged at the Monster with a torch, burning him about the neck. He quickly obtained his rifle and put a bullet into the creature; but in bringing life to death, Victor Frankenstein had created a sort of unlife that was now an engine of destruction. Lifting Frankenstein off his feet, the Monster held him high and affirmed who was now the master. And the Monster began to tell Frankenstein a story...
Karen: The encounter is well done.The Monster is in the "costume" he'd wear through-out his Marvel career, one obviously inspired by the fur-vest look of Son of Frankenstein. The Monster's self-hatred is evident, and personally I don't feel an ounce of sympathy for Victor!
Doug: The Monster, as I first "met" him, was rendered by Sal Buscema and Dave Cockrum in the "Celestial Madonna" storyline in the pages of the Avengers; so once he shows up in his furry vest, I felt right at home with him. Back to the present of 1898, Walton stopped in the midst of the narrative. Suddenly one of the sailors burst into his quarters with news that while the ship had set sail, a terrible storm was blowing in. Walton ordered all hands on deck to fight the winds; but sensing that it was too much, Walton ordered that the sails be cut. It was at that moment that the crew mutinied. And not another moment later, one of the masts broke free. Ordering his crew to safety in spite of their black hearts, it was Walton in a cruel twist of fate who was crushed beneath the tumbling log. As the ship tosses on the raging sea, the huge block of ice down in Walton's cabin begins to slide. To one side, near the stove, and then back. But when the ship lurches hard, the ice slides strongly against the stove while a lantern topples on top of it. And the huge block of ice begins to melt away rapidly, revealing a chalky-white hand... that moves.
Doug: Wow -- this was as good as any of the Classics Illustrated I used to read in the school library when I was a junior high guy. I was thoroughly engrossed by Friedrich's script. Obviously Frankenstein, the Monster, Frankenstein's first obsession then paranoia... all are metaphors for societal conditions and ills. Mike Ploog's art was perfect for this sort of story. I remarked to Karen in an email a couple of weeks ago when we were setting this up that Ploog's pencils seemed reminiscent of the Atlas work of Kirby, Ditko, and Heck. Maybe it was the coloring of the Marvel Firsts that gave the art a heavy feel, but it seemed perfect for Friedrich's words. Good stuff!
Karen: Agreed! I've been slowly tracking down issues of this title. But now I really want all of them!